I find that I write better in correspondence than I do when I simply try to generate thoughts. That having been said, I’m posting a few bits and pieces from an email exchange I’ve recently been having with my friend Robert. In the following missive I attempt to explain my discomfort with the triumphalist narrative of American history which tries to vindicate and justify every aspect of our national past via a sort of apologia Americanae.
It’s difficult, isn’t it? That’s all I’m trying to say: it isn’t so simple and so clear a matter as any of us would like to think. Were injustices perpetrated against the colonists? Yes. Did these warrant redress? Certainly. But a right to revolution? That is an invention of eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy, specifically drawn from the thought of John Locke. I have a hard time reconciling the vast majority of Lockean thought with Christianity; he is, in fact, the “bad guy” par excellence when it comes to dismantling community, tradition, and duty for the sake of “individual rights.”
I just don’t really believe that it ever became necessary “in the course of human events.” That is a huge assumption, known in formal logic as a tautology, or “begging the question.” “When in the Course of human events,” the Declaration begins,
it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
In place of that statement, I would posit that a question was in order— indeed, is always in order: “When in the Course of human events is it ever necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another?” And how about, “Do the Laws of Nature (whatever they may be) really entitle a people to a station that is separate from and equal to their governing authority?” Just think about the implications of this statement: this is to stand the entire notion of government on its head! Take it to its logical extension, and you have anarchy. Again, the premises that we are working with here are deeply flawed assumptions about the human condition lifted straight out of the pages of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government.
“Transport me back to their day,” you write…
My friend, every man at that time was a sinner, but not simply because he was loyal to the crown or fought against it with the colonists. That wouldn’t have been what made you a sinner, had you been living in that time. Who of us knows what we “would have done”? It’s impossible to say. And by what criteria can we say that to fight against the crown was clearly the lesser of two evils? Having studied the Founding period at great length while at Hillsdale (the American Founding was my emphasis) and since graduating, I really don’t think I can even say that George III was a tyrant. But what if he had been a tyrant?— really, truly, and demonstrably so. Even then, what basis does the Christian have for overthrowing tyrants? Why is it that St. Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, exhorts the believers there not to overthrow but to submit to one of the most infamous tyrants in history, that deranged persecutor of Christians, the emperor Nero? A radical position, indeed!
And what of the loyalists? Are we really to fault them for remaining loyal to the crown? Are we to say that they were not patriots? Are we to say that they were evil, on the “wrong side of history”? Un-Christian? See, this is one of the myriad problems with the myth of American exceptionalism: it asks us to judge men by an invented ethical standard that has nothing to do with God’s Law. And what does God’s Law, preached here by St. Peter, have to say?
Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.
Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. (1 Peter 2:13-20; emphases mine)
Fear God. Honor the king. Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. Powerful injunctions, these.
I will not disparage the courage of the men who fought for their homes, their families, and their English rights against the British soldiers. But neither will I reserve the term “patriot” for them alone. I can only surmise that it was on account of a holy fear of God and a pious sense of honor for their king, George III, that the Tories, the so-called “loyalists”, did not condone their fellow colonists’ rebellion. George III was by no means exceptionally bad as a king. I mean, he was sort of bad. He had his faults. But anyone who has studied English history knows that he was not really that far out of the main. People say, “He wasn’t even British! He was German!” That’s a lame criticism— even the British aren’t British! They were (and are) a polyglot of Celtic, Mediterranean, Scandinavian, Germanic, and French from the very beginning! You want to know who the closest people are to “real British”? The Irish and the Welsh. Count how many Irish or Welsh monarchs the English have had. I can count them on no hands.
But I digress…
Many, many men of the founding generation inveighed against the injustices perpetrated by the crown even to the point of taking up arms against the king’s soldiers— but for a redress of grievances, not for independence. At the time of the revolution, about a third of the colonists were squarely in favor of independence, about a third were loyal, and about a third were torn or ambivalent. (John Dickinson refused to vote for independence or sign the Declaration; however, he fought for the colonials, nonetheless.) Musters of armed men protesting on behalf of their ancestral rights and privileges against their barons and lords were utterly common throughout English history, up until and even after the rebellion of the colonies. It was an English tradition! (It’s also one that the still-very-British Americans kept up after their vaunted independence was achieved— can you say “Whiskey Rebellion”? But by then there was a new central power holding sway, albeit not a king. Suffice it to say, though, that this later populist uprising didn’t fare very well, even though their grievances were practically identical to those of the colonists in 1776. And then there’s the small matter of the War of Northern Agression four-score years later…)
Armed and boisterous protesting was one thing, but rebellion and declared independence by the dubious fiat of British subjects, on behalf of their “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? My friend, we only glory in it because we won. History is a tale written by victors, with the victors’ principles of selection and arrangement deciding what story is traditioned to posterity.
The problem with settling on one or another particular event in history and calling it “providential” is that it suggests that other historical moments were not providential, or were less providential. If that’s the case, what are the criteria for deciding? How can we know these criteria? America’s history is not coterminous with the sacred historical narratives of the Old and New Testaments, whose sacredness is known and documented in the Scriptures! We have no reason to suggest or believe that America has been the recipient of God’s special providence more than any other country. Can’t we just love our country as she is? Or can we only love her if she’s categorically better, truer, and more beautiful than everyone else?
Last I checked, it was the Church which had been clothed with Christ’s righteousness, sanctified, and set apart as His Bride and Beloved, and it was the Church which was and is God’s Israel. Not Rome in all of its glory. Not the British Empire in all of its pomp. Not the state of Israel born in 1948 in all of its Zionism. Not the United States of America in all of its Yankee ingenuity and rugged individualism. Not any nation or state.
So what do we do? Do we go back to Britain? Well, no. Obviously not. As I mentioned above, Britain’s government is no more legitimate. No government is perfectly legitimate. If we all just “went back,” it would start an infinite regression all the way back to the Garden of Eden. But the fact that we cannot “go back” to some pristine state in no way means that we must instead delude ourselves with a romanticized narrative which seeks to justify America in toto— or any nation, for that matter— at every step along the way of her tumultuous history. We dare not look to any secular history for surety, for a tale of righteousness and virtue to which we can lay claim to as some kind of national birthright.
Where, then, do we look?
“If then you have been raised with Christ,” St. Paul says, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3). It’s not hidden in America, as great as America is. It’s hidden with Christ in God. It’s at right angles to this earthly plane, farther up, farther in, where the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the one true faith. It is the communion with God Himself which we have been caught up into already here on earth through the Incarnation, Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ and the ministry of His mystical body, the Church. Though this life may be lived out in America, with all of this land’s blessings, it may just as blessedly be lived out somewhere else.
I’m going to stop now, because I feel like I’m getting on a bit of a soapbox, and I don’t want you to feel like you’re on the business-end of a tirade. This just happens to be something that I have a lot of opinions on, which is probably all the more reason for me to keep a lid on it. Once again, I would love to hear what you think.